"Mr. President: I would like take a few minutes to speak about the importance of the Andean Trade Preference Act -- and the need to reauthorize this immediately.
"The Andean Trade Preference Act was first enacted by President George H.W. Bush as a way to boost the licit economies of several Andean nations that were major producers of illegal drugs. Over the past two decades, this program has been supported by Democratic and Republican presidents. It has been reauthorized by Democratic and Republican congresses. And it has been widely recognized as a dramatic success -- c eating jobs for our workers who can sell cheaper imports to American consumers as a result of these trade preferences, while also supporting the economic development of strategically important countries in our hemisphere.
"One of those countries is Colombia. While we have been rightly focused on other parts of the world over the past decade, Colombia's transformation in that time from a failed state to a thriving democracy has been one of the world's true success stories -- and one of the greatest bipartisan triumphs of U.S. foreign policy in recent memory. Through the courage and perseverance of the Colombian people, the government and armed forces of Colombia took their country back from terrorists, and drug traffickers, and warlords who murdered the innocent indiscriminately, and sewed our society with illegal drugs. We were with them every step of the way. It was President Bill Clinton, together with a Republican Congress, that first enacted Plan Colombia. And it was President George W. Bush, initially with a Democratic Congress, that expanded Plan Colombia. Over the past decade, the Congress has invested more than $8 billion to help Colombia win its war, and it has been some of the best money we've ever spent on a national security program.
"The Andean Trade Preference Act has been a critical component of this effort. It has provided Colombia, along with other Andean nations, essential open access to our markets that has catalyzed their success. And what's more, the vast majority of the products these countries are exporting to us are things that Americans barely produce at all, such as cut flowers. So it provides a huge benefit for our partners with little competition or displacement for our workers. It is truly win-win.
"Unfortunately, after the long record of bipartisan support for this successful and vital program, the last Congress did something deeply short-sighted and terrible: Rather than extend the trade preferences, as previous congresses have done, it made their passage, and the passage of other vital free trade measures, conditional on the extension of a whole array of new government spending -- spending that our country cannot afford at this moment of fiscal crisis.
"As a result, the Andean Trade Preference Act expired last weekend, and with it the privileged market access that is so vital to key Andean partners like Colombia. What is even more horrible, we are failing Colombia at the worst of all possible times, as it is struggling to recover and rebuild from massive flooding. I was in Colombia last month, and I saw the effects of these floods firsthand. They have been devastating, and the estimated cost to rebuild is several billion dollars.
"But it is even worse than that. Not only has this Congress denied Colombians of vital trade preferences at a time when their country is literally under water, it has done so amid the continued failure to ratify the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. This agreement mainly benefits us -- leveling the playing field for U.S. workers seeking access to Colombian markets -- but the signal of strategic commitment that it sends to Colombia cannot be understated. By failing, for five straight years now, to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, we are sending the opposite signal -- that the United States is an unreliable and untrustworthy ally, that we seem to be incapable of rising above our own domestic political difficulties to consolidate our strategic partnership with one of our best friends in the world. This is just sad.
"No trade agreement. A time of great need due to a natural disaster. And how has this Congress responded? By failing to extend critical trade preferences for Colombia and our other Andean friends. We have kicked an ally while they are down and right when they need us most. Colombian officials tell me that, without these trade preferences, their cut flower industry, which is one of the pillars of the Colombian economy, could contract by 15 to 20 percent in the coming weeks.
"Now is the time to right this wrong. Now is the time to come together and extend the Andean Trade Preference Act -- by itself, on its own, and on its merits, just as congresses before us have done. This legislation will do that. It will extend the privileged market access for our Andean friends until November 30 of next year. After we have invested so much in the success of the Andean region -- investments that have earned us enormous goodwill and gratitude -- why would we do anything to call our friendships into question? Why would we do anything that harms our allies? We cannot afford not to extend the Andean Trade Preference Act."